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Jimmy Graham vs. Rob Gronkowski; why the Saints are running

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Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his weekly notebook. The topics of this edition include:

» A surprising sentiment about corners and safeties.

» What Delanie Walker prioritizes at tight end.

» An eye-catching change in New Orleans.

But first, an examination of a debate that should be re-ignited at a marquee position ...

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Who's better: Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham?

A few seasons ago, that question would've set off an epic debate in the Twitter-verse, especially ahead of a prime-time showdown between their teams, but injury and a slow transition to a different offensive scheme since Graham's 2015 trade to Seattle seemingly squashed that discussion. With Graham now re-emerging as a dominant force on the perimeter for the Seahawks, we might want to pause before handing Gronkowski the "best tight end in the game" crown.

Now, I know some of you will roll your eyes and scoff at the notion of someone supplanting the Patriots star as top dog at the position, but don't forget that both Gronkowski and Graham rank as the most prolific tight ends in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns since they entered the NFL in 2010. In fact, Graham's 56 touchdown receptions in that span rank only behind Gronkowski's mark (68), while they are only a little more than 100 yards apart in receiving yards (Gronkowski has 6,039 while Graham has 5,902).

If you think about how close those numbers are, it's easy to see why Graham deserves equal billing on the marquee. He has not only recorded a pair of 1,000-yard seasons in his seven-year career, but he has notched 10 touchdown catches or more in three seasons. Although Saints coach Sean Payton's clever play designs helped turn Graham into an unstoppable force on the perimeter during his time in New Orleans (2010-14), there is no denying Graham brought a unique set of skills to the league as a 6-foot-7, 265-pound playmaker with the speed of a wide receiver, the size of an offensive tackle and athleticism of an NBA small forward. He was the ultimate mismatch on the perimeter, exhibiting too much speed and quickness for linebackers and possessing too much strength and length for defensive backs.

As a result, Graham dominated opponents from the perimeter as a hybrid tight end-receiver in a Saints scheme that positioned him on the flanks (out wide), in the slot and as a traditional tight end. He topped the 80-catch mark in each of his four seasons as a full-time starter in New Orleans, and he emerged as one of the NFL's most dynamic weapons.

But then he was shipped to Seattle in a surprising trade for center Max Unger and a first-round pick last March, and Graham's success seemed to dry up. Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had a tough time plugging Graham into a scheme that was built around a franchise running back (Marshawn Lynch) and an unheralded cast of pass catchers. In fact, the offense appeared to run better when the superstar tight end was sidelined (see: quarterback Russell Wilson's otherworldly production during the final month of the 2015 season, when Graham was out with a torn patellar tendon), which diminished his value in the eyes of some observers.

This season, however, has been a different story. In eight games, Graham has topped 100 yards three times en route to accumulating nearly as many yards (545) as he did in 11 games all of last season (605). He also has five receptions of 20-plus yards and is averaging a career-high 14.3 yards per catch.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski has been one of the NFL's biggest and brightest stars since his arrival as the 42nd overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He burst onto the scene with a 10-touchdown rookie campaign in New England, the first of five seasons in which he posted double-digit scores. He wasn't fully appreciated as a superstar due to the presence of another talented rookie tight end (Aaron Hernandez) who gave the Patriots a potent duo on the perimeter. But even with Hernandez on the field, there was reason to believe Gronkowski was much more than a complementary piece of the offensive puzzle, as evidenced by the 38 touchdowns Gronkowski scored in his first 43 NFL games, tied for the third-best mark in a player's first three seasons.

After Hernandez exited the scene following the 2012 campaign, Gronkowski fought through a spate of injuries that limited him to seven games in 2013 and slowed his production early in 2014. However, Gronkowski re-emerged as the preeminent playmaker at the position, posting back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons in 2014 and '15. Most impressively, Gronkowski scored 23 touchdowns and notched 41 receptions of 20-plus yards during that span.

From a scouting perspective, Gronkowski is like "Conan the Barbarian" on the field. He overwhelms defenders with his 6-6, 265-pound frame, yet displays remarkable athleticism and agility running away from coverage. As an excellent route runner with superb body control and a savage "post-up" game, Gronkowski can bully his way to any spot on the field. The Patriots take advantage of his unique skills by aligning him at various spots in spread and condensed formations to dictate coverage and exploit any favorable matchups on the perimeter.

Considering how Patriots quarterback Tom Brady carves up defenses with a surgeon's precision, I'm not surprised to see that Gronkowski is currently averaging 22.0 yards per catch on the strength of 10 receptions of 20-plus yards this season. Not to mention, he is viewed as the best blocking tight end in the game, with a knack for sealing the edge.

I can see why many observers would opt for Gronkowski over Graham, but I believe it's a much closer debate than most would imagine. Graham's résumé is nearly as spectacular as that of the Patriots star, and he creates just as many problems on the perimeter. Sure, he is not quite the blocker or bullying presence that Gronkowski is in the run game, but NFL teams have routinely paired a "move" tight end or H-back with a traditional blocker at the position to balance out "12" personnel sets (Gronkowski started his career with the Patriots as a "Y", with Hernandez occupying the "H" position) or simply used more six-man offensive-line packages on run downs (see: the Saints during Graham's years). Thus, Graham's biggest liability can easily be masked through clever scheming and personnel deployment.

"They're really similar," said an AFC defensive coordinator. "They give you problems with their size, catch radius and ability to stretch the field. Plus, they are also tough to defend in the red zone." Added an AFC secondary coach, "It doesn't matter what system or scheme those guys play in, they can dominate the game ... They want the ball, and they make things happen when they get it."

In the end, the debate really comes down to style preference. If you're looking for a traditional tight end with a rugged game at the point of attack and between the hashes, Gronkowski is your guy. But if you're a creative schemer with a plan for an oversized receiver with size, athleticism and leaping ability, then Graham's the choice.

Regardless of your preference, if you leave out either player in the discussion of the game's top tight end, you're wrong -- the ultra-athletic tight end in the Pacific Northwest deserves his share of the spotlight.

ASK THE LEAGUE: Would you rather build around a safety or corner?

As the NFL has transformed into a passing league, executives and coaches have been forced to reconsider how they build championship-caliber defenses. When I look around the league at the top defenses, I've noticed that most have a dominant cover corner and safety in place. Teams like the Seattle Seahawks (Richard Sherman/Earl Thomas), Denver Broncos (Aqib Talib/Chris Harris, Jr./T.J. Ward), Arizona Cardinals (Patrick Peterson/Tyrann Mathieu) and Minnesota Vikings (Xavier Rhodes/Harrison Smith) are just a few examples of how elite defenses are placing a premium on having a premier player on the island and between the hashes to shut down the high-powered aerial attacks torching the league.

While the presence of two elite players in the defensive backfield is a luxury, I wanted to know which position is the most important building block on a championship defense. Thus, I reached out to a few of my NFL buddies to get their take on the following question:

If you're building a championship defense, which is position is most important: safety or corner? More specifically, would you prefer an All-Pro safety or an All-Pro cover corner to build around?

AFC player personnel director: "Corner."

AFC defensive coordinator: "Whew! You need to have one of each, but if I had to choose I would take the corner."

NFC secondary coach: "Wow! That's a hard question ... It really depends on the style of defense that you want to run. Most guys would love to have a 'shutdown' corner so that you can cheat the safety elsewhere ... If you're a safety-based schemer like Dick LeBeau, you want an All-Pro safety who can blitz and cover. In the end, I would choose a corner ... The college game has led the NFL to want to play in space. You have to have a cover corner to combat that."

AFC secondary coach: "It depends on the scheme, but I would always take the corner."

NFC pro personnel director: "Give me the corner. It's a passing league, and I need a guy that can lock down his side ... Let's be real, how many safeties are out there making plays on the ball and changing the game other that Earl Thomas?"

AFC pro personnel director: "In the era of the spread offense, I'm convinced a corner is more beneficial to defending the passing game, because he can match up with the opponent's No. 1 receiver ... Ideally, you would like to have a cover corner and an enforcer-type safety in the middle."

MY TAKE

I'm a little surprised that everyone opted for the cover corner in this debate. Although every team-builder cites a pass rusher and "shutdown" corner as must-have components of a championship defense, I was under the impression that few evaluators believe true "lockdown" corners exist today. When I've previously quizzed defensive coordinators and scouts on the "shutdown" corners in the game right now, I was told that there hasn't been a legitimate guy since Darrelle Revis was at his peak in 2009. In fact, several coaches pointed out that a number of "elite" corners are playing with safety help over the top, and few had the tools to snuff out a No. 1 receiver using a variety of different techniques (backpedal, press or bail technique) on the island. Thus, I assumed more evaluators and decision makers would be intrigued by the prospect of adding a dynamic safety to the mix to disrupt an opponent's offensive game plan.

In my mind, an electric playmaking safety with cornerback-like skills and a linebacker's mentality would provide a crafty defensive play designer with the ultimate Swiss Army knife. Said safety could be deployed against slot receivers or tight ends in space or wreak havoc off the edges an extra rusher. That's how I've seen the Arizona Cardinals use Tyrann Mathieu as part of their top-ranked defense, and I believe he is a more valuable asset. I would even point to Earl Thomas as the most valuable member of the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom," due to his ability to eliminate plays down the middle as the ultimate centerfielder. He can take away deep balls from numbers to numbers, yet he can also fill the alley as an extra defender against the running game. When I survey the NFL landscape, I see young players like New York Giants safety Landon Collins, the New Orleans Saints' Kenny Vaccaro and the Atlanta Falcons' Keanu Neal playing key roles for their teams as "MOF" enforcers.

On the other hand, I certainly understand how much a "shutdown" corner can impact a defense, particularly when he is capable of neutralizing an opponent's No. 1 receiver or completely discouraging a quarterback from throwing to his side of the field. If a defensive coordinator has that kind of player in place, he can tweak his defense to help a vulnerable corner on the other side of the field. This can result in the defense using the CB1 on a No. 2 receiver, with a double-team or bracket on the No. 1, thus forcing the quarterback to settle for the third option in the passing game (think of the New England Patriots' philosophy). So I get it when defensive coordinators salivate at the possibility of adding a Richard Sherman, Patrick Peterson, Aqib Talib or even a Josh Norman to the mix. Those guys are high-level playmakers capable of reducing an opponent's options in the passing game.

Considering how many NFL teams are throwing the ball around the yard, it's imperative to have at least one difference maker on the third level. While I value a disruptive presence in the middle of the field, it appears that my NFL brethren would prefer to build their championship squads around a premier cornerback with the capacity to cut the field in half for the opponent's offense.

THE REBUTTAL: A tight end explains the rise of tight ends.

With tight ends gaining prominence in today's game, I thought I would reach out to one of the best playmakers at the position, to get his thoughts on the position and why so many NFL teams are featuring the tight end prominently in the passing game. Here's my one-on-one conversation with Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker:

Why are tight ends so important in today's game?

Delanie Walker: "We can run-block and we can also play receiver. When you can find a guy who can do both ... Where he can come down to the end of the line and run-block, but also spread out in the slot or single up to run routes and catch balls, it gives teams a dual threat."

So many teams are using the tight end as the mismatch guy. What kind of skills do you have to have to create those kinds of problems for the defense?

DW: "The tight end position has evolved into something bigger. Back in the day, the tight end was mainly just blocking guys, he was basically an extra tackle. Now, you have to have the skills to run routes and catch the ball, while also being strong in the run game as a blocker. But I think the focal point is being able to catch the ball and win one-on-one matchups."

During your time in San Francisco (from 2006 to 2012), you teamed with Vernon Davis to give the 49ers a dominant 1-2 punch at tight end. The New England Patriots now have a dynamic tandem in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett. What kind of advantages can an offense create with two dominant tight ends on the field at the same time?

DW: "You can create big advantages. With two tight ends on the field, you will see a base front from the defense with three linebackers. When you have tight ends who can run routes against linebackers, that's a mismatch for the offense ... That's why you're seeing more teams using two tight ends ... When you see two tight ends on the field, you normally think that's a run formation, but we can shift out of it and spread out their base defense. Now, you have one-on-ones against linebackers with good route-running tight ends."

If you could give a young tight end some advice on how to improve his game to become a dominant player in the NFL, which areas would you say to focus on?

DW: "I would tell them to work on route running ... They can always teach you how to block, but if you can run great routes and catch the ball, I think that goes a long ways in this league."

MY TAKE

Walker's perspective on the tight end position is in line with the NFL coaches and executives I've talked to in recent years. Several offensive coordinators believe the tight end position is the easiest spot at which to create mismatches, particularly with the basketball player-like athletes currently manning the position. Savvy play callers know how difficult it is for defenses to match up with big-bodied pass catchers with superior size, strength and athleticism on the perimeter. With teams also realizing the challenges "12" personnel packages (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) create on the field, it's safe to say the tight end position is revolutionizing the passing game in the NFL. And that's not to mention the advantages crafty play designers are creating in the run game, with a variety of tight-wing formations and exotic motions used to exploit vulnerabilities on the edge.

After digesting my conversation with Walker, I believe he is definitely onto something when he prioritizes route-running and pass-catching skills over the other traits at the position. As today's game continues to shift toward a pass-heavy emphasis, offensive coordinators are searching for ways to create easier throws for the quarterback, and the natural advantages that athletic tight ends enjoy over linebackers and defensive backs make them the ideal candidates to anchor a passing game. Although the No. 1 receiver will remain the focal point for the majority of NFL offenses, I believe the role of the tight end will continue to grow with more play callers seeing the advantages of targeting a big-bodied pass catcher.

NEXT GEN STATS: The Saints' throwback plan.

Maybe it was simply a coincidence that Sean Payton decided to turn back the clock on the New Orleans Saints' offense as the rest of America turned back the clocks in their living rooms. But there is no question the offensive wizard is using old game plans from his Super Bowl-winning playbook to get the Saints back on track in the NFC South.

I'm sure you vividly remember the Saints rolling to Super Bowl XLIV in 2009 behind an explosive aerial attack with Drew Brees at the helm, but that squad was actually buoyed by the NFL's sixth-ranked rushing attack. The team repeatedly fed Mike Bell, Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush a bevy of carries between the tackles to control the tempo and set up big-play opportunities for Brees on an assortment of play-action passes.

Fast-forward to this season, with Payton revamping an offense that had leaned heavily on Brees (now 37) and a young receiving corps into a blue-collar unit led by a punishing running game. Don't get me wrong: The Saints are still a high-powered offense fueled by a dynamic aerial attack. But the team's gradual shift to a ball-control approach has paid off handsomely in recent weeks, as evidenced by New Orleans' two-game winning streak.

Since Week 8, the Saints have led the NFL in rushing yards per game (185.5) behind the re-emergence of Tim Hightower and Mark Ingram as dependable workhorse ball-carriers. Hightower in particular has taken his game up a notch since being promoted to a bigger role in the backfield. Over the past two games, he has amassed 189 rushing yards on 49 attempts with a score. Most importantly, he has given the Saints' running game the kind of "thump" that had been missing since the beginning of the season.

Studying the All-22 Coaches Film, I was impressed with the Saints' use of a variety of zone runs with Hightower in the game. The hard-charging runner is typically directed between the tackles on inside zone (directed at the guard's outside leg) or outside zone (directed at the tackle's outside leg) runs, with the option to attack the front-side or cutback based on the reaction of the defense.

Poring over Next Gen Stats, I noticed that the Saints have changed their personnel and formation packages with Hightower on the field. After averaging only 1.7 and 0.3 rushing attempts, respectively, from single-back and I-formations during the team's first seven games this season, he has posted averages of 17.0 and 4.5 rushing attempts from those formations during Weeks 8-9. Hightower's success out of the single-back is particularly impressive, due to his 4.3 yards-per-carry mark from that formation.

From I-formations, Ingram has averaged 4.7 yards per carry on an average of 3.0 rushing attempts over the past two games. Interestingly, Ingram hasn't logged a single carry from a shotgun formation after averaging 4.6 shotgun runs during the first seven games of 2016. Although he successfully pounded the ball between the tackles to the tune of 4.7 yards per rush out of the gun, Ingram and the offense work best when the RB1 aligns at the "dot" position.

Naturally, it makes sense for Payton to tweak his offense based on the data compiled from self-scouts, but he also considers the individual and collective strengths of his team when adjusting the game plan. Looking at the Saints' recent games, I've noticed more six-man offensive-line packages showing up on the tape. Now, this isn't necessarily a new trend for the Saints or Payton, as he would regularly use an extra offensive tackle at tight end during the Jimmy Graham era. But he has doubled down on the package of late. After using six-man offensive lines on 31.9 percent of the team's offensive snaps during Weeks 1-7, the Saints have featured their "heavy" package on 46.8 percent of their snaps the past two games. They have averaged 3.5 yards per play in the package during that span, which suggests the offense is able to stay on schedule when playing "big-boy football" at the line of scrimmage.

Considering how run-heavy squads have dominated the NFC in recent years, the Saints' return to a blue-collar formula makes them not just a potential playoff squad, but a unit that could do damage deep into the postseason.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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